Is Becoming a Dentist Worth $261,149 in Debt?

Dental school debt

Dentistry might appeal to you if you want to improve people’s wellness and oral health. It’s a hands-on profession that often calls for creative problem-solving. Dentistry can also be an ideal path to owning your own practice, setting your own schedule, and earning a six-figure income.

But there’s one big drawback to a career in dentistry: dental school debt. Here’s what you need to consider before taking out loans for school.

Average dental school debt and ROI

For many considering dental school, a dentist’s high earning potential is a big draw.

“I think the costs of dental school are worth the benefits — you can make a very good living of it,” said Jason Cabler, DDS, a dentist who’s been practicing for 24 years and oversees the personal finance blog Celebrating Financial Freedom.

The median pay for dentists is $153,900, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data. New dental school graduates won’t be earning this much right away. But they will start with relatively high pay, with a median entry-level salary of $118,800, according to PayScale.

The biggest reasons to think twice about dental school, however, are the costs and dental school debt. Still, you’re looking forward to big earnings.

Before deciding to attend dental school, research the costs and project your financial outcomes. “Get serious about repaying [your debt] — dentistry can be a stressful profession, and debt will just add to that stress,” said Cabler.

Lost earnings while in dental school: $220,000

Dental school isn’t just an investment of your time. You’re also missing out on potential income. A typical graduate with a bachelor’s of science in chemistry (a common major for pre-dental undergraduates) can expect a typical salary of $55,000 annually, per PayScale.

But a graduate who chooses to use her time attending dental school will lose out on those earnings. Typical lost earnings would be around $220,000 over the four years it takes to earn a Doctor of Medicine in Dentistry (DMD) degree.

Average dental school debt: $261,149

Then there’s the matter of paying for dental school. Students often have to borrow heavily to cover tuition, fees, and equipment or supplies needed for their studies.

It’s not uncommon to take out student loans to cover living costs while attending dental school full-time, either. Because of this, the average dental school debt was $261,149 for the graduating class of 2016, according to the American Dental Education Association.

Here are some more stats on average dental school debt:

  • A borrower with the average dental school debt of $261,149, who borrowed at the Grad PLUS rate of 6.31%, faces a monthly payment of $2,940.
  • This same borrower would pay $91,664 in interest on this debt, for a total cost of $352,813.
  • It’s rare to make it out of dental school with no or little debt; only one in five 2016 dental school graduates had dental school debt under $100,000.
  • Among dental school graduates with debt, 30 percent owed more than $300,000.

Dentists make back their $570,000 investment in 8 years

Between missed earnings, student debt principal, and interest, a dental school graduate can count on sinking about $570,000 into dental school. But that investment also buys dental school graduates a spot in a high-paying profession. So how long does this investment take to start paying off?

The return on investment will depend, of course, on how much a new dentist is paid. Dentists who graduate and are able to find high-paying jobs will see a return on their dental school investment much faster.

Let’s compare the typical entry-level salary of $118,800 with the $55,000 average salary of a chemist with a bachelor’s degree. Assuming a five percent increase in earnings each year, here’s how the earnings compare:

Dentist salary Bachelor’s salary Difference Total return
Year 1 $118,800.00 $55,000.00 $63,800.00 $63,800.00
Year 2 $124,740.00 $57,750.00 $66,990.00 $130,790.00
Year 3 $130,977.00 $60,637.50 $70,339.50 $201,129.50
Year 4 $137,525.85 $63,669.38 $73,856.48 $274,985.98
Year 5 $144,402.14 $66,852.84 $77,549.30 $352,535.27
Year 6 $151,622.25 $70,195.49 $81,426.76 $433,962.04
Year 7 $159,203.36 $73,705.26 $85,498.10 $519,460.14
Year 8 $167,163.53 $77,390.52 $89,773.01 $609,233.15

 

As shown in the table above, it takes about eight years on average for a dentist’s increased earning potential to offset the cost of dental school. However, by that point, the investment in dental school is also generating an impressive $90,000 extra in income each year.

5 Questions to figure out if dental school debt is worth it

Now you’ve seen the typical dental school return on investment. But these numbers are not the whole picture. There are other factors to consider besides just your bottom line. And a central concern should be managing dental school debt.

Here are five questions you should consider when weighing your personal dental school ROI:

1. Will dentistry make me happy?

Danny Masters, DDS, is a recent dental school graduate who blogs about his journey out of student debt at Red Two Green. He said that the decision to go to dental school had more to do with his dream of becoming a dentist than earning a high income.

“I am confident that you can earn a lot of money as a dentist, but because it is so expensive, that shouldn’t be the only factor,” Masters said. “From a purely financial perspective, I think there are lots of other jobs you can get or create and earn six figures without investing half a million.”

Cabler agrees that dentistry won’t be the right career for everyone. For those considering dental school, he suggests getting an idea of what the job is like.

“I made friends with my dentist, for instance, and went in and hung out with him in his practice as much as I could to see what it is all about,” he said. “I had a good idea of what I was walking into, but some people don’t.”

2. Can I limit dental school debt?

You should also consider whether you can limit your dental school debt. If you can reduce the amount of debt you take on, it can have a huge effect on your finances for at least 10 years after graduation.

Masters ended up graduating with $570,000 in combined graduate and dental school debt — a high balance that he said was the result of not living on a budget while in dental school. He wishes he’d done more to limit his dental school debt and had some suggestions for how those attending can do so:

  • Get used to living on a budget. “Start now by living on a budget and get used to that lifestyle until your loans are paid off,” Masters said.
  • Downsize your expenses. Consider switching to a cheaper apartment or even moving back in with parents while in school.
  • Choose a low-cost dental school. “Sometimes you don’t have many options in terms of what dental schools you are accepted to,” Masters said. “But aim for the best schools with the smallest price tag,” both when applying and choosing your dental school. For instance, in-state public dental schools will be less costly than private dental schools.
  • Borrow only what you need. Student loans are not free money, so resist the temptation to treat them that way. Only take out student loans for the amounts you need to cover tuition and bare necessities, even if you could borrow more.
  • Get someone else to pay for dental school. Apply for every scholarship you can find. Consider participating in programs like National Health Service Corps (NHSC) and the armed forces that offer tuition assistance for a work commitment.

3. Is student loan forgiveness really an option?

In addition to limiting dental school debt, students should also make a plan to repay student loans. Don’t assume you can have your student loans forgiven.

“Many classmates would say things in passing like, ‘Eh, we’ll just apply for student loan forgiveness,’” Masters recalled. “But [student loan forgiveness] really is a complicated decision and fairly uncharted territory.”

Programs offering student loan forgiveness for dentists have specific rules for eligibility. You can see a full list of these programs in our guide to student loan forgiveness for dentists.

Qualifying for student loan forgiveness might require a dentist to move — often to rural areas — for a lower pay. Deciding whether to trade a high income for forgiveness is not a cut-and-dry decision.

4. What are my dental school debt repayment options?

Look into other options to keep dental school debt affordable:

  • Private student loans might offer lower interest rates than what you’d get on federal Grad PLUS loans.
  • Income-driven repayment plans can lower high monthly payments based on your income, to keep them affordable.
  • Refinancing dental school loans can be another option to lower your interest rates and monthly payments after dental school.

With each option, think carefully about potential tradeoffs. For example, Masters said he hopes to refinance his debt to reduce the interest he pays. But he wants to wait until he’s sure he can afford the monthly payments that would be as high as $7,000 for a 10-year term.

“You lose protections when you refinance, so when you have as much debt as we do, it’s a good idea to have sure footing going into it,” he said.

5. Can I aggressively pay down student debt?

The above options can be helpful in managing student debt. But for dentists looking to maximize their dental school ROI, working to pay down student debt fast will be one of the best ways to do so. For each student loan you pay off, you free up cash flow and reduce the amount of interest you pay over time.

Maximizing your earning potential can help you generate extra income to put toward student loans, too. For instance, you might choose to pursue high-paying dental specialties.

You might also work toward owning your own practice. Private practitioners often earn higher incomes and have more growth opportunities than dentists working with a dental service organization.

With a dentist’s high pay, it will still be a challenge — but doable. “When you get out of school you’re going to be making a good bit of money,” Cabler says. “But I recommend that for the first two or three years after school, live like you’re still in dental school and put every extra penny towards student loans.”

If this is your goal, refinancing dental school debt can be a smart strategy. If you can get lower interest rates, more of your payments will go toward actually lowering your principal and paying off the loan.

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